Train of thought
I'm on my way to Nottingham for a Kirby workshop and to attend Simon Collison's fantastic New Adventures Conference for the second time and this is my "travel diary" of a quite unusal journey.
Dear diary …
I've visited this conference for the first time in 2011 and it was a very special trip back then as well. Nottingham isn't that easy to reach from Germany. In 2011, the options to get there were even less ideal than today.
After searching for affordable flights without luck, I joined a small group of German web devs that I knew mostly from Twitter. We organised a road trip in a rental bus from Essen via Antwerp to Nottingham. It turned out to be pretty legendary.
I had the chance to hang out with Marc Thiele, Vitaly Friedman, Andreas Dantz and Stefan Nietsche for quite a while that way and I still have very fond memories of our conversations, the conference and our beer tasting in Antwerp :) The connections that we made on that trip still last today and I'm very lucky that I joined them.
Fast-forward, 9 years later:
Through many lucky accidents, Simon Collison invited me to run a workshop at this year's New Adventures and I couldn't be more excited about that. Not just about the workshop, but about finally returning to Nottingham and to New Adventures after all those years.
So here I was again in fall 2019, looking for a way to get to Nottingham.
Many things have changed in 9 years. But there's one topic that has become more relevant than everything else. We are in a climate emergency. 2010-2020 has been the hottest decade in recorded climate history. What still felt like a far-future-problem in 2011, feels very urgent today.
I have to say that I spent the last two years mostly struggling to find a way to deal with this emergency on a personal level and it's not over yet. What's my role in all of this? What can I do as a father to fight for a livable future for my kids? How do I change my own priviledged and harmful way of living? Is there even a solution or are we doomed anyway?
I felt mostly paralyzed and hopeless.
As a result, I joined FridaysForFuture protests and started to reduce my meat consumption. With Kirby, we are now providing free licenses for all climate movement projects. We joined a German initiative of companies that pledge to take action against climate change. We moved most of our servers to green hosting and will move the remaining server as well soon.
I really want to change something, but this all still feels like a tiny drip of water on a hot stone.
I'll be honest, when looking for ways to get to Nottingham this time, I started to look at flights again. Frankfurt - Birmingham or Düsseldorf - Birmingham were two viable options. One with Lufthansa, one with EasyJet. But it just felt wrong.
This is not going to be an article about how we all should stop flying. This is all about a very personal decision. I wanted to move away from arm-chair-activism this time.
The idea of taking the train instead of flying excited me. I really love trains – when they are on time and connections work. I'm also not very comfortable with flying in general. Or to put it differently: I'm very good at imagining how the plane crashs (yes, I know it's irrational)
When I started looking into train connections from my little town (Neckargemünd) to Nottingham I was pretty sure that it is going to be completely insane and that I would need to get back to a flight anyway.
It turned out that a reasonable train connection takes around 9.5 hours. I was pretty astonished. That's not that bad at all!
The flights from Frankfurt or Düsseldorf both take around 1.5 hours. When I added the train from Neckargemünd to Frankfurt or Düsseldorf, time at the airport in Germany, flight, time at the airport in the UK and the final train from Birmingham to Nottingham I ended up with around 7 hours for the trip via Frankfurt and about 8.5 hours for the trip via Düsseldorf. And suddenly the train started to look quite competitive. Especially in terms of pricing.
The flight via Düsseldorf with EasyJet was about 263 € both ways and the cheapest option.
The flight via Frankfurt with Lufthansa was 364 € both ways and the most expensive option.
The train costs 293 € both ways and is only slightly more expensive than the EasyJet option.
So here I am in the TGV from Karlsruhe to Paris EST, going at 310km/h with tons of legroom, no limit on baggage, a free seat next to me and pretty decent wifi (you hear that Deutsche Bahn?). Being in the EU (brilliant concept btw) I can use my personal hotspot without any issues if the wifi fails and it already feels quite productive in here.
Ok, let's be fair. This trip isn't as straight-forward as it seems from the paragraph above. I have to change trains 4 times. In Heidelberg, Karlsruhe, Paris and London. That is an uncomfortable number of points of failure. But luckily I already passed the first two with only 15 minutes to switch trains. The next two will give me an hour each. That's an interesting fact about this trip: I spend 2.5 hours on train stations. I see room for improvement there. 7 hours from Neckargemünd to Nottingham. It's doable :)
What really shocked me are the prices and how fast the connections are from Karlsruhe to Paris (2.5 hours) and from Paris to London (1.5 hours). You can get both trips for around 39 € (one-way) if you book early. That's absolutely amazing if you ask me.
I'm not in Nottingham yet and it still might end with unpleasent surprises, but I'm already massively enjoying this guilt-free trip. It also showed me not to dismiss longer train connections too early because of length or cost. Especially for family vacations! As much as I love to hate the Deutsche Bahn for all the weird situations I had in German trains, as much do I still enjoy travelling without sitting behind the wheel or being flung in the air in a metal tube.
Are such kind of trips the solution to our climate emergency? Of course not! But I think it's time to do a few things differently than before and be more considerate about daily decisions.
I don't think that we can turn this emergency around by personal action only. It's a dangerous method by our politicians to hand over responsibility to each individual, while the big emitters can keep on with business as usual.
But I do believe in chain reactions. We are closely connected to our social bubble: our neighbours, our family and friends. We are intuitively influenced by their choices and behaviors and we influence them in the same way. We can start a chain reaction with what we do. It's not always obvious but a small shift can propagate quite far.
I have been very negative in the past months. I found it hard to see something positive in all of this and I dragged my own social bubble down with me. But I no longer wanted to be the one, who turns up with more negative news and discussions. This does not lead anywhere.
I loved a chapter in Luisa Neubauers Book "Vom Ende der Klimakrise: Eine Geschichte unserer Zukunft" about new utopias. If we want to move forward, we need positively-charged visions for our future. We need new utopias. There is no way to see a path ahead when there's no goal.
There are quite a few visions that I can instantly see and that give me hope and something to work for. Sitting in a high-speed train going through Europe one of those visions is not even that far away. A great, fast, affordable and climate friendly transport network isn't something that is totally utopian.
The world can be different.
I'm back in my office after a fantastic week at New Adventures in Nottingham.
I don't want to go on forever about my train rides, but I was extremely lucky in both directions. I had a total delay of ~10 minutes, no missed connections, no cancelled trains – it went really well and I enjoyed it a lot. It didn't feel like 2 × ~10 hour train rides at all. The various stops gave them a nice flow and each individuall trip was never longer than 2.5 hours. After all it was more like two very enjoyable office days in very fast trains.
New Adventures Conference and the conversations around it definitely left a mark. It was an intense and thought-provoking conference with more than just one important message.
My personal key takeaways:
1. We can't go on like this
It's tough to get to that point to accept that our way of living is over. Many still prefer to pretend that this is not true. But we are currently hitting the wall much faster and harder than we thought and it will get worse.
2. We need positive visions for the future
I mentioned this above from the book of Luias Neubauer and Alexander Repenning (I wish there was an english version) and it was also an important part of the first talk at New Adventures by Cennydd Bowles: we need new utopias – or as Cennydd put it: protopias. Positive future visions to work and live for.
In my opinion, this is the most crucial part for us as designers & developers. We can help shape and design those visions. Maybe even more importantly, we can help those who turn such visions into reality to promote and accelerate their work.
This will require a completely new direction for most of us. I believe that the next decade will be a fight to stay relevant as an industry that's completely useless in any real humanitarian crisis.
3. There's still hope
Some of the young activists of the Friday for Future movement like to call themselves possibilists. As a negativist, you found an easy way to escape any necessary action, because we are doomed anyway. As a positivist, your naivety can be a comfortable way to ignore actual facts and stay passive again. The activists describe possibilism as not giving up hope yet as long as there's a plausable window for change. But also being aware that real action has to be invested in order to get there and staying realistic about how hard it will be. I really like this approach.
Things can still change. New Adventures has been a good example. Suddenly the discussions at a web and design conference shift from how to build a design system or which JS framework to use to existential questions about our future role and about topics such as climate change, inequality and the consequences of our work.
Let's try to move this to other parts of our own lives and other industries. Let's create some chain reactions!